Friday, April 6, 2007

Martin Luther King's Last Year

Forty years ago this week, Dr. King presented the US with his noteworthy anti-Vietnam War speech. The speech, which was indeed a classic - and one from which Americans have yet to learn much of anything - was part of a transformation in his thinking that occurred during the last year of his life. From Ahmed Shawki's book Black Liberation and Socialism(pp. 200-204):
King began to see the connections much more clearly between racism at home and racism abroad, in particular between the economic inequities at home and the war budget. King also started to rethink his understanding of violence. He was keenly aware that the growing urban unrest in the North was an expression of the frustration and impatience that existed among Blacks - and a corresponding sympathy and openness to more radical solutions. After the Watts riots, King declared, "It was a class revolt of the under-privileged against the privileged." In 1967, he concluded, "after Selma and the voting rights bill we moved into an era which must be an era of revolution.... The whole structure of American life must be changed."

King now made clear that there was a great deal of difference between the violence of the U.S. state and the violence of those rioting in urban centers across the country, and he began to use a different vocabulary to describe his tactics, referring to "massive nonviolence," "aggressive nonviolence," and even "nonviolent sabotage."

Trying to overcome the collapse of the coalition he built to challenge Southern segregation, the apparent failure of the movement in the North, and the growing impatience among Black activists and Blacks more generally, King formulated a new strategy:
Nonviolence must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods. Non-violent protest must now mature to a new level, to correspond to heightened Black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This high level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.... To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer lasting, costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive. It is a device of social action that is more difficult for a government to quell by superior force.... It is militant and defiant, not destructive.
King's most powerful indictment of the war came on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered. In a speech at New York City's Riverside Church, aptly titled "A Time to Break Silence: Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," King declared:
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
These kinds of views were not welcome by many of the liberals who had previously praised King in the struggle to end Jim Crow. As [Michael Eric] Dyson observes:
King's assault on America as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" elicited a predictably furious reaction from the White House. The news media was even harsher.... Richard Lentz notes that Time magazine had, early in King's opposition to the war, characterized him as a "drawling bumpkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling." Newsweek columnist Kenneth Crawford attacked King for his "demagoguery" and "reckless distortion of the facts." The Washington Post said that King's Riverside speech was a "grave injury" to the civil rights struggle and that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." The New York Times editorialized that King's speech was a "fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate" and that King had done a "disservice to both."
Once King began to attack a war that many "respectable" liberals had deemed necessary, he became public enemy number one among the establishment PC police of the day. Not too surprisingly, the White House, along with the elite media organs of the day began a smear campaign against their former ally.

If King were alive today and making similar speeches about the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I have little doubt that the "Support the Troops" crowd (not only on the right-wing of the nation's political spectrum, but also among the nominally "liberal" and "progressive" wings) would be attacking King as "uppity" and bordering on "treason" and no doubt being "irresponsible" to the civil rights cause.

If King were alive today, I also suspect that he too would be reflecting on how little we had learned in the last four decades.

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